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Cleaning up abandoned mine sites is necessary in restoring the land

BY Joshua Janke Oct 18, 2023

The “Site Characteristic and Cleanup Campaign” Report for 2022 was released to the public in September. Headed by Adario Masty, the campaign report exhaustively details Cree action in environment and ecosystem remedial works. 

In 2018, a four-party agreement with the Quebec government, the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government, the Cree Nation Government and the Fonds Restor-Action Cri was established, aimed at restoring abandoned mining sites in the territory. 

In November 2021, the CNG submitted a Clean-up Strategy for 2022-2026. Headed by its Environment and Remedial Works Department, the goal was simple – clean up and restore as many abandoned mining sites as possible. 

This included 45 distance-based sites, 67 Mistissini sites, six Waskaganish-Nemaska sites, and 23 near the communities of Eastmain, Wemindji, Chisasibi and Whapmagoostui. Of these sites, 45 were quickly cleared for characterization by the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (MERN), making them ideal locations for Masty and crew to launch a pilot cleanup project. 

It was noted that the logistics of “the 2022-2026 Clean-up Strategy is subject to change as most sites are yet to be characterized.” However, the strategy “sets an important baseline for future work.” 

Ten Mistissini sites located along the M16, M17B and M17C traplines were identified as suitable locations. The 2022 report shows that six sites “could be cleaned with land user team”, while four others “required technical expertise for cleanup.”

The cleanup campaign worked through eight abandoned mining exploration sites on the northeast side of Mistassini Lake, with all MERN validations completed to ensure that the work was within the scope of the agreement. 

The pilot project in 2022 consisted of two campaigns – the first from September 9-12 and the second on October 1. The Cree team included Masty, Johnny Matoush, Lindsey Coon, Harry Coonishish, Norman Coonishish, Norman Matoush and Randy Matoush. Additional land users and helicopter pilots as well as boats for water access and a “SkyTrak telehandler” to stack massive steel barrels. Some of the rusted barrels still contained fuel, which the team transferred to new barrels to ensure there was no risk of contamination while restoring the sites.

“All materials collected from the sites were stored at the camp and then transported to a recycling and treatment centre in Chibougamau for proper disposal,” Masty stated in a document provided to the Nation

The crew ensured that colour photos documented their efforts, and the final report published dramatic images. For instance, hanging from a whirring helicopter, a larger-than-life weight scale was used to weigh all materials hauled out of the abandoned mining sites. The final count of materials removed and properly disposed of includes:

  • 10 full 45-gallon steel drums (still full of fuel)
  • 67 empty 45-gallon steel drums
  • 17 empty 10-gallon steel drums
  • various metal scraps and garbage.

In total, “1,500 pounds of waste have been removed from Eeyou Istchee land thanks to all the individuals who participated in the 2022 pilot project.” Masty stated that while the pilot project was a great success for the number of restored sites restored and amount of waste removed, he says that a key part of the project is in the data gathered. 

This included “large amounts of important information related to the logistics in sites without road access” and the construction of the three-step process of “validation, characterization, and cleanup” for future sites. 

The project’s “Clean-up Decision Tree” shows how the team defines what personnel and equipment is required and the expertise and safety precautions needed to complete the job. When arriving on a site, a team undertakes a three-step analysis to qualify site restoration needs. 

The first step is analysing the site’s contents by checking if it contains more than 10 barrels, batteries or other tanks such as cooking oil. Next, the crew does a contamination test, reporting “any leakages or stains larger than one square metre,” the report states. 

“A kick test is used to make an immediate decision on the severity of the contamination…it shows whether or not the staining is present even after the top one inch of the soil has been displaced.” 

If the team receives a “Yes” during any of these three steps, additional expertise and equipment is needed, due to the dangerous chemicals and possibility of complications created by the contamination’s size and mass to be removed.  

In the report’s conclusion, Masty laid out the project’s accomplishments and goals for 2023. “The clustering of sites created in the 2022 pilot project is beneficial as it significantly reduces costs related to future helicopter mobilizations as well as the appropriate disposal of materials which will be found on these sites.” 

Masty stated that the employment opportunities created in 2022 bolsters hopes for 2023 projections. “The hiring of tallymen for the cleanup process is advantageous as their participation not only is the most efficient mode of labour employment, but also importantly ensures that consent and approval is obtained from residents and land users before the team begins site restoration.” 

The negative impact that mining has had on the Eeyou Istchee environment and community is evident, and Masty hopes that the clean-up will bring positive change in these abandoned mining sites.

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Joshua Janke lives in Montreal and is studying English Literature at Mcgill University. He is passionate about writing, social justice, and creating art.